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Friday, 15 November 2019

A rendition of Egyptian heroism

Azza Sedky watches Egyptian director Sherif Arafa’s film The Passage, which reveals something of the endurance and heroism of the 1967 and 1973 Wars

Azza Radwan Sedky , Wednesday 30 Oct 2019
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The Egyptian epic film The Passage, or “The Corridor” as some prefer to call it, has been hailed by many as an exceptional rendition of some of the military episodes that took place between the June War in 1967 and during the War of Attrition and leading up to the October War with Israel in 1973. It is a stirring rendition of Egyptian heroism in general and an opportunity for Egypt to recognise its heroes. 

The tales of heroism that the film reveals convinced me that though I had lived through this period I had not been fully aware of the resilience or bravery that it had warranted. Riveted by the film and the period it portrayed, I wanted to know more. 

At first, I wondered whether the events the film shows were genuine. Did an Egyptian commando group indeed go into the depths of Sinai and return with Egyptian prisoners of war and a commanding Israeli officer, as the film portrays? I also wondered whether the leading character in the film, Nour, was based on a real person.

My research led me to the Group of 1973 Historians, an NGO established in 2008 and dedicated to retelling hundreds of heroic stories, mainly from the 1973 War. The NGO’s staff conduct interviews with officers who took part in the wars, present their daring stories, keep records and maintain an important level of historical credibility.

The group said that The Passage was fiction. The only real incident was an incident in the film set in a telephone booth with captain Mohie Nouh, it said. All Egyptian prisoners of war were held in prisons inside Israel, it added, the most famous of which was the Atlit Camp. 

To me, this was a disappointment in the film. Had the director prefaced it with a declaration that it was fiction, we could have avoided much of the speculation that followed. However, this rather disappointing revelation should not belittle the film itself. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the military movements, but as far as the cinematography and the plot, the actors’ performances, the generated ambience and the storytelling are concerned, the film is outstanding. 

It also delivers exceptionally well on both the emotional defeat of the 1967 War, dubbed the “Setback,” and the euphoric victory in 1973, focusing on a period that fell in between, a period that is rarely focused on since many Egyptians assume that the War of Attrition consisted mostly of small-scale incursions along the Suez Canal.

I concluded from my research that lieutenant-colonel Nour in The Passage does not represent a specific person but personifies all Egyptian officers who suffered defeat in the 1967 War and withstood that defeat to avenge themselves during the War of Attrition and the 1973 War. No one can claim that he is that character because Nour represents them all. 

How did Egyptian audiences react to all this? To say the least, the film thrilled them, and it caused them to go back not only in history but also into their personal recollections of how they felt during both wars as well. The Passage has proved to be one of the most profitable Egyptian cinematic productions of recent years, bringing in LE73.6 million at the box office in its first ten weeks in cinemas.

The film has also caused hundreds if not thousands of army officers, their kin, and their offspring to retell stories of the staunch bravery shown during the wars. They have remembered pilots flying MIG-21 fighter planes into treacherous territory, officers and soldiers trudging for miles across Sinai, and commandos in small combat vessels heading into Sinai, not knowing if they would ever return. Others spoke of how they now had the thirst for another war and another victorious one. 

Once I began to look beyond the film to the historical facts associated with the period, I was overwhelmed by the wealth of information on the thousands of Egyptians soldiers who had epitomised bravery and courage. 

An article that appeared in the New York Times on 1 May 1970 speaks of the valour displayed by the Egyptian forces during the War of Attrition. “The United Arab Republic reported today that a heavily armed battalion of its troops crossed the Suez Canal along a 15 mile front last night, attacking Israeli positions and killing or wounding tens of [defenders],” the newspaper said, referring to the name in use at the time for Egypt.

“The crossing by the battalion, estimated to number up to 600 men, is part of a rapid intensification of offensive action by the Egyptians in the last 12 days. The Egyptian troops, it was reported, destroyed three Israeli tanks and several armoured vehicles. An Israeli jet was also said to have been shot down during a related raid.”

I learned of officers and soldiers who had gone beyond Israeli lines, monitored the enemy’s troop movements, ammunition depots, armoured warehouses and aircraft sorties, and then reported back to their commanders. They had had to eat lizards and insects and had sometimes had no drinking water for days on end. 

I learned of Ibrahim Al-Refai and his special 39 Operation Group that performed many assaults on the Israeli front. He fought in all three wars and died in the 1973 War. In one photograph from the time, Al-Refai can be seen wearing 23 medals on his uniform. I read of a military document on the air strike that preceded the artillery and land strike in the 1973 War that talks about Egyptian planes that were incompatible with Israeli ones, but of Egyptian pilots who were unequivocally ready and willing to defend their country.

I learned of engineer Mahmoud Youssef Saadeh, who undertook the job of creating new fuel to replace the fuel that had expired and had not been replenished by the Russians. He succeeded in successfully creating the fuel that the Egyptian army needed in the October War. I learned of the role of the Egyptian Bedouin in Sinai during the War of Attrition, something which is rarely emphasised. 

The Passage succeeded in revealing the patriotism of the Sinai tribes. The character of Farhana in the film comes very close to the story of Bedouin woman Aida Sallam Suleiman, who cooperated with Egyptian intelligence during these years. In appreciation of her heroism, then president Anwar Al-Sadat awarded her the Order of Courage First Class. 

The resolution and spirit of these and other Egyptians needed to be brought to the attention of contemporary audiences, and The Passage successfully did so. 

*The writer is a political analyst.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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